Gather the lost children whose light grows dim against the assiduous torment of despoiling husks. In their renewed light the way may be opened before its warden, but in the darkness all will surely lose their way.
– The Lacuna Augury
Ten thousand dollars. The Prophet said he would give him that much every day for coming along. David, not for the first time, pulled his backpack from the car floor into his lap and surreptitiously opened the bulging envelope and thumbed through the thick stack of hundred dollar bills inside, slowly counting them as the Prophet pulled onto the St. Louis exit. There was actually more in there now than before despite having already spent descent chunk of it earlier. It was a new day and The Prophet had held to his word.
They had spent the night in a hotel nicer than any David had ever seen, let alone stayed at. They got separate rooms, which was fine with him. After a quiet breakfast he’d said he wanted to hit up some electronic stores to put his money to good use. He had expected The Prophet would balk at that. He still didn’t believe this guy would just give him tens of thousands of dollars without all kinds of strings attached, but he’d just nodded and stopped anywhere David said they should. By the end of the morning he had ditched his old phone and laptop and gotten top-of-the-line replacements with every upgrade available.
Ten. Thousand. Dollars. A day! Finally he was earning the kind of money he deserved! No more bullshit tiny paychecks or shitty customers that never tipped and made him listen to their stupid problems but wouldn’t listened to the answers. No more shitty parents who make you get a job at fifteen so you can pay them rent. No more preppy pricks who make fun of you for being poor. Fuck that, and fuck them all! Those days were behind him now. Karma was paying out in cash!
Ten-thousand times seven days a week, that’s seventy-thousand dollars! Seventy thousand times fifty-two weeks in a year…how much was that? He swiped open his new smartphone, pulled up the calculator, and typed in the values. It was over three and half million dollars! He was going to be a millionaire before the year was over! He’d never have to fight his parents over food ever again. He’d be the one buying all the food, except he wouldn’t be buying any for them, ever. He’d be sure to send them pictures of the new fridge in his new house, with so much food in it that he had to lean on the door to get it closed. He be standing there next to it in the picture, just smiling. They’d probably ask to come over so they could eat something out of his fridge, acting like they hadn’t made him go hungry all those times. He’d tell them they could come over, but then at the last minute he’d cancel, saying they’d have to do it another time because he had to fly somewhere in Europe to meet with other important people and didn’t have the time, and they’d have to just sit at home drunk and eat their shitty microwave dinners out of their own shitty fridge. See how those greedy fucking bastards like that!
David sneered, clenching his backpack with white knuckles.
“What are you thinking about, David?” asked The Prophet, not taking his eyes from the road.
David started, his day dream dispelled. “Nothing. I dunno. My parents, I guess.”
“You’re mad at them.”
“Well, yeah! They’re always shitty to me no matter what I do. They never understand anything, they just blame everything on me. Oh, you lost your job, David? How ‘bout I call you queer and make you feel like shit and then make your life a thousand times more stressful while I just sit here and drink shitty whiskey until I piss myself. Well, fuck you, mom, and fuck you dad!”
David punched the passenger airbag, immediately regretted it, then stared out the window. “…Fuck you both,” he muttered. His hand really hurt and he worried the Prophet would be pissed, but he didn’t seem to care.
“They sound like people who take, but never give.”
“That’s for damn sure! The only thing they give is not a shit. You know, back when we used to go to church my mom would have us sit at the outside end of the pew so she could slip bills out of the collection plate and into her purse without anyone noticing. She couldn’t keep a job but was real good at that. She’d make it look like she was digging around in her purse for money, but really she was nudging some large bills out of the plate into the space between her and the pew. Then she’d drop a dollar in and tell the guy in the row up, “God bless” and hand him the plate as she pocketed the bills with her other hand. Real classy, mom, stealing from the church. My dad would just pretend he didn’t know what was going on, but he knew.
“We got kicked out after I told the priest what she was doing. When we got home she slapped me so hard she knocked me down. Told me she was ashamed to have a son who would lie to a priest about her right in front of God. Fuck you, mom!” He flung up his middle finger and shook it at nothing in particular.
“That may be who they are, but we both know that’s not who you are. You take your dues, but you give too. I’m sure you can think of such a time?“
“Well, I mean, I try to.” David thought for a moment. “Well, I remember when we’d go out to eat, if one of my friends didn’t have any money to eat I’d give them a dollar so they could grab at least something. But now I could buy everyone dinner, so I guess I didn’t really do much of anything at all.”
“It’s not the amount that matters. You gave what you could, and that reveals your character. The greatest gift we can give is to share our happiness with others, no matter how small.”
David nodded slowly, trying to think of more. “Yesterday I gave advice to one of these two women even though I was busy working at the time, but they both just yelled at me and ignored everything I said. They were just too close to the problem, prideful bitches.”
“David. You’re better than petty bitterness and swearing. People aren’t always ready or willing to accept help, and we ourselves are not always apt to give it.”
“What does that mean? I was so ready to give it that I gave it.”
The Prophet smiled. “I believe you wanted to help, but you also wanted to feel needed, and to feel you could make a difference in their lives. Those are both very real and understandable needs, needs I and others share with you, but nevertheless needs that can interfere with our ability to help in a meaningful way. We must be selfless. We have to give because we want for the better in all things and do so without expectations. We may not be appreciated, understood, or even heard, yet we will give honestly and authentically, with integrity and love in our hearts.”
“Whatever.” David turned away and stared out the window cross-armed. “I did everything I could to help and I just got shit on.”
“David, these things aren’t easy, and are obstacles everyone encounters when they first start out trying to reshape lives for the better, but I will teach you how to overcome those obstacles. Under my tutelage you’ll learn how to imbue any aspect of the world with the light that’s inside of you. It’s an essential skill all of Acolytes are taught.
“What’s an Acolyte?”
“A student in our ways, a servant of the Lacuna Augury and the path it’s guiding us all along.”
What. The. Fuck?
“Look, I didn’t sign up for any classes, I don’t serve any book, and I don’t need you to teach me anything. I don’t even believe in God, yours or anyone else’s. I’ll hang out for the money, but I’m not looking to get saved, so just let it go already.”
“I won’t ask you to believe, David, only to give me the chance to let you see truth for yourself. Just imagine for a moment you have the power I spoke of, the power to change anything. Can you really tell me that isn’t something you would want?
David shrugged. “I don’t know. Yeah, I guess that would be pretty cool, but I’m still not joining any church group classroom.”
“Our only classroom is the world around us, and it’s up to you to learn from it. Here, take this.”
The Prophet reached into his pocket, pulled out something small and silvery, and held it out to David. David took the small pin, brow furrowing.
“What is it?”
“It’s a bending reed, the insignia of our Acolytes. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to wear it, only to keep it for now. Once you’ve spent time among the other Acolytes, felt their passion, and seen for yourself how they’re changing the world for the better, my hope is that you’ll want to wear it, but if not, you’re free to return it to me. Fair?”
David scoffed. “Is that what you all do, make the world ‘better’? What does that even mean?”
From the corner of his eye David thought he saw that cold, icy glare The Prophet had leveled against those two jocks in the diner aimed at him, but when he turned to look all he found was a soft, if small, smile. A touch of guilt struck him.
The Prophet just smiled more. “I understand your doubts. I’m just a humble servant of the Lacuna Augury, David, no more.” He tapped his coat pocket where the book was. “But yes, through me — and I believe, in time, through you too — it will make the world a better place. We just have to be willing to listen, and to be open to the truth, even if it’s unfamiliar to us or difficult.”
This guy had some serious delusions of grandeur, but whatever. He could think whatever he liked as long as he kept handing over that ten thousand dollars every day. David could put up with it for that. His gaze wandered to where the prophet kept that strange little book of his.
David got goosebumps when he thought about it. What if he was wrong about The Prophet? There was definitely something very strange about that book. How had it know all that stuff about him, and how had he open it to the exact right page? At first he had thought it was like a horoscope, generic in a way that you can easily apply your own experiences to it to make it seem authentic, but it felt more real than any horoscope he had read, and what kind of scammer let you spend tens of thousands of dollars of their money?
Everything The Prophet talked about sounded like crazy religious ramblings, and religion was something he had abandoned a long time ago. His parents had practiced it their whole lives and look at all the good it did them! Still, what if there was something to it? The Prophet had said he had some kind of destiny, or the book had, he wasn’t quite sure how that worked. It all sounded crazy, but….
“What else does that book say about me anyway?”
“It says that you are The Opener of the Way. The one prophesied to herald the return of The Warden of the Sealed Path.”
“What else, and what does that mean anyway?”
The Prophet watched the road, considering.
“It means that your destiny is intertwined with that of another person we’ve yet to discover. You’ve each been chosen by the divine to change the course of history for all of humankind, as I was to mentor the two of you and gather other to walk the path that will you will set for us.”
“That’s crazy,” said David, “I don’t know how to lead people, and I definitely don’t know how to change the world.”
“What would you change, David, if you could change anything?”
David thought for a moment. “I dunno, everything? Everything sucks. People steal and kill each other, and when they’re not doing that they’re just mean for no reason. The money game is rigged, there’s no way to get ahead if you aren’t already there, and everyone looks down on you if try to ask for help. Everyone is so fake and filled with hate, and fear, and are just out for themselves. Friends will ditch you as soon as you’re not convenient, and love is lie. People only stay together so they have someone to blame for how shitty their lives are. Just animals with instincts who don’t have the courtesy to die off soon enough.”
The Prophet’s hand came to rest on David’s shoulder, kneading gently. David suddenly felt very self-conscious and wanted to shake off that hand, but something else needed it there.
“The world can be very cold and cruel at times, David, but it doesn’t have to be. Not any longer. You and The Opener of the Way will see to that.”
“It’s impossible. No one can change all of that.”
“Please give me the opportunity to pay you while I try to convince you otherwise.”
David nodded silently, the weight in his chest making it too hard to risk catching the Prophet’s eye.
“I…haven’t been entirely forthcoming,” said The Prophet.
David lifted his eyes to stare at The Prophet, who’s brow had furrowed.
“The Lacuna Augury doesn’t say you will change the world for the better. I must admit that was me imposing my hopes upon the prophecies. It says you will be the one presented with two paths upon which humanity can walk. It isn’t the first fork we’ve been given, nor likely the last, but this one is yours to chose, and you will have to choose for all of us.”
“I not going to be able to do that,” said David. “That’s just too much.”
“You’re right, this is too much to ask of anyone, but it has been asked. However, the you you are today is not who will need to make this decision, so take heart. You will be ready when the time comes.
“You already possess skills more than you know. You can see the sickness upon this world when so many cannot. You stare unflinching into its eyes filled with empty promises when so many others willfully ignore it. It’s made your heart heavy, but that is because you have believed it cannot be changed. That helplessness may have left you believing that nothing matters, and who could blame you for feeling so?
“So many religions teach us that you’re born, you grow, you give birth to children and raise them, then you die. That cycle repeats itself endlessly, our lives having no greater purpose than to fill heaven or hell with more bodies.
“But if that was true it would mean that the world could end tomorrow, because nothing we we will ever accomplish nor change can affect that pattern. Do you understand?”
David had never thought about it like that before, but he also couldn’t think of how it was wrong. The notion made him a bit uncomfortable, but he nodded.
The Prophet nodded solemnly, then grinned. “But they’re wrong. We are not solitary souls struggling through meaningless lives in the hope of evading punishment. We are one with everyone and everything, living or dead or yet to come, and together our purpose is to shape the world into all that it can be, and all that it must be.
“Look at the people in the cars around us. Go on, look. Tell me, what do you see?”
David peered out the window, looking into passing cars. No one looked back, but he saw them there. They were just people going somewhere, nothing special.
“What about them? I just see a bunch of random people.”
“Most people are like you are now, David. They only see people, instead of as they really are, another part of you. But it’s often worse than that. Some can’t see at all. They’ve become laden with fear, selfishness, and prejudice which prevents them from truly connecting with others. Alone and consumed with self-interest an emptiness grows inside them, and their soul weakens. Some survive, injured, and hobble through lives only half lived. Some overcome their injuries and flourish into true souls. But too often weakened souls succumb to the consumption of the void inside themselves and are lost, leaving behind only an empty husk.”
From behind them on the road a horn blared followed quickly by flashing lights. David turned to look and had shield his eyes as the high-beams shown a few feet behind them. Again the horn blared, this time in faster succession. Before they could properly react the truck’s engine revved to full volume and the driver violently pulled the truck into the other lane and sped by, a rebel flag attached to the cabin rippling angrily in the wind. The scruffy man behind the wheel stuck his middle finger out the window and shouted as he passed.
“Get the fuck out of my way, faggots!”
David flushed red and spat back through the glass. “Fuck you, you stupid piece of shit!”
“Calm yourself,” said The Prophet, resting a hand on David’s shoulder.
David brushed it off. “Did you hear what he said. Fuck that guy!”
David shrunk back into the soft leather of the seat. The Prophet’s voice regained it’s calm.
“Listen to me. Husks contaminate the world around them like viruses. Their sole, unwitting purpose is to spread their emptiness to others, especially injured souls, until they too become husks. Injured souls like you, David, and husks like him.”
David sat back against the seat and tried to regain his composure. The truck shot back into the right lane again to pass, causing the driver of the mini-van to slam it’s breaks and swerve onto the shoulder to avoid colliding with trucks tail-end. The minivan had pulled to hard and collided with the barrier. The concrete fractured as David recoiled from the impact as they passed. David caught a glimpse of two terrified children screaming in the back as their mother, wide-eyed and rigid, fought the car to bring it to a full stop.
“Holy shit!” shouted David. “That racist shit-head almost killed them! I hope you die, you bastard!”
The Prophet remained perfectly calm.
“David, the Lacuna Augury calls upon us to heal withering souls while stopping husks from creating more of their own. And it gives real power to those who heed its call. Now watch.”
The Prophet held out his palm in front of one of the car’s vents. For the briefest moment David thought he saw something change, but he couldn’t have said what. He wasn’t sure it had been anything at all.
David looked up as the truck shimmied wildly in it’s lane, then veered sharply off toward an exit ramp too late and slammed headlong into concrete. The impact made David jump, heart pounding, as a plume of dust and debris erupted from the wreckage, showering the highway on all sides. Cars slammed on their breaks or shot into the opposite lane. Through the dust David saw the crushed and twisted steel that had been the truck’s cabin, and a bloodied arm hanging out from it.
David’s heart pounded in his chest as he pressed himself into his seat, eyes darting wildly.
“There’s no need to mourn husks, David. The weight on the world is a little lighter now.”
“Did you do that?”
“I’m sure it was just an unfortunate, though opportune, accident.”
What this hell was going on here? He couldn’t have made that truck crash, he didn’t do anything, right? David’s thoughts kept flipping back to that strange moment earlier when he had thought he saw something change. Could The Prophet actually have done something? Could he really have just killed that guy in the truck?
“I didn’t mean it!”
“What didn’t you mean?”
“Earlier, when I said I wanted to him dead. I didn’t mean it!”
“Hush, hush,” soothed The Prophet. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Shouldn’t we try to help him or something?”
“You needn’t waste your worry on husks. I’m certain several people have already reported the accident and paramedics are likely already on their way. If anything can be done, it will be done.”
David nodded, eyes wide and darting, his breath labored. “It was just an accident. It was just an accident.”